This morning, I read through Bill Nye’s Reddit “Ask Me Anything (AMA)” thread. One of the things that struck me about the thread was how much people loved and missed his show. It was like a Mister Rogers-level outpouring of affection, but from geeks & nerds.
Myself and many others bemoan about how nowadays children lack interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). This, to me, is what makes Bill Nye, The Science Guy such a fond memory. It harkens back to a childhood where at least some attempt was made to make science cool, when Bill Nye was joined by Miss Frizzle, Johnny Quest, and a number of other curiosity-inspiring, nerd-exciting shows. While there are some standouts today such as the excellent Phineas and Ferb, and while geek culture is experiencing a resurgence in today’s youth, there seems to be a lack of educational cartoons and children’s shows that inspire kids to look into STEM disciplines. I would argue that this is more important than you think given America’s TV-driven culture.
Frankly, developing nations are crushing us when it comes to motivating children to pursue STEM fields. From my brief experience living in Shanghai and interacting with China-raised children, schools are not only much more STEM focused; they are more competitive across the board as well. In today’s increasingly flat world, competition will only intensify. Today’s children will likely compete with the children of developing nations for entrance into our most prestigious universities, and tomorrow’s children may be competing in a truly flat worldwide job market where language and country of origin mean less than education and work ethic.
If this trend continues in the US, we will either be forced to rely on immigrants for a significant chunk of our STEM workforce (something which we are already trending towards), or we will simply become an unattractive place to build a tech company compared to other countries. The low supply of high quality programmers, engineers and scientists in the US is one of the primary reason why their price (aka salary and benefits) has been driven so high in recent years. So far, Silicon Valley has escaped from the downdraft of the global markets because the value of a “10X engineer” is literally an order of magnitude more valuable than a less proficient engineer. But as education, communication and expertise become more flat, this advantage will slowly erode away.
To many in the US, Bill Nye represents a better time. A time where new American inventions like the internet seemed to offer limitless opportunity. A time where the US still saw itself as the undisputed world leader in STEM disciplines. When asked point-blank what he would do to encourage American children’s interest in science, he encouraged parents to show their children the upcoming Mars landing. I think he’s got the right idea: science, math, and engineering need to be exciting, not boring. They need to be cool, not lame. My hope is that new American innovation can keep that dream alive (as evidenced by the tech boom inspiring unprecedented enrollment in computer science courses). In particular, I look to SpaceX as an inspiration for myself and hopefully countless others. American science is not dead, but it’s going to take a lot of effort to get these disciplines back on their feet again. If we all pitch in, we may have a fighting chance.